I went to the cinema last night to see District 9. It’s been out for some time, but it was still a surprise to be a whole one-third of the entire audience.
It was an astonishing, refreshing and gripping South African science fiction film, set in the near future when an alien ship arrives on Earth with a million impoverished refugees. Told partly in documentary format and partly in live action, the film explores the lives of the aliens in a slum district of Johannesburg and follows the tragic consequences of an attempt by the South African authorities to relocate the aliens to a supposedly better site.
The film is fast-paced, gritty, violent and gory, but cannot be viewed simply as a shoot-em-up human v alien scifi flick. There is so much more within it that makes it stand out as a truly remarkable film.
The most obvious thing is that it’s not American. It sounds like an odd thing to emphasise, but this film is a world away from how you could imagine Hollywood treating this concept. It is firmly and unambiguously South African in its look and feel, but most noticeably its sound. The harsh accents and slang of Afrikaans-speakers reminds you in every line that this is somewhere very different from what you normally hear and see in a science fiction film. Snippets of dark and unexpected humour, too, stand out as features of a well-written script.
Secondly, the film paints a far from standard picture of aliens. The aliens arriving over Johannesburg are neither fearless warmongers nor socially-advanced bearers of peace. They come, for whatever reason, as refugees – hungry, leaderless and terrified. While they are in a pitiful situation – left for years to fend for themselves in a slum – their lack of organisation, civility or what one might call humanity makes the viewer struggle to muster much in the way of sympathy for them.
Thirdly, this is a pessimistic film. There are few heroes to speak of, on either the human or alien side, and both sides appear to have done little to understand each others’ motivations, characters and needs. The aliens struggle in their impoverished state, being exploited by both criminals and international corporations. There are strong echoes of both South Africa’s recent wave of xenophobia towards immigrants, and its earlier Apartheid era.
That said, there is an ending which – after having you on the edge of your seat – offers some hope, not to mention the realistic prospect of a sequel. If – and it’s always a big “if” – the sequel would be up to the standard of the first film, then it would be definitely something to look forward to.
As a bit of a postscript, the trailers last night were, appropriately enough, all science fiction films too – 2012 and Surrogates sound like great concepts that could be treated in typical Hollywood style (ie badly), while Avatar looks quite phenomenal and I will definitely try to see it.